April 19, 2021
First hats off to Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, for his long-term reporting and recent book with finely detailed references and sources for much of what I discuss below. So anyone can go look up dozens of pages of tiny print resources on the back of his book, or even the hundreds of links on my articles to verify everything stated is documented and true. A link is on the website.
It is well established that when a big box store moves into a small town or a sector of a larger city, all of the surrounding retailers suffer and eventually go out of business.
I personally observed the effect in Florida where I went regularly for cave diving in the 90’s when Walmart was expanding aggressively.
Many of the tactics Amazon uses were initiated first by Walmart, but have become perfected by Amazon.
First, it must be understood that Amazon pays token, or no taxes, to the states. Profits go offshore. Yet it expects the state to provide employees and supply all the amenities a government normally does with tax revenues.
So when it approaches a state, the Local County, and municipality, it makes demands for concessions. For example, the Bessemer center in Alabama had about a $200 million investment, for which Amazon got $52 million in state subsidies. Plus the state paid for the surrounding roads and logistic support from taxpayer money. That means every taxpayer in the state was subsidizing one of the most profitable companies in the world.
Now we know e-commerce is growing, and we do not deny that the ease of ordering from Amazon is addictive, but on the other hand, the state, county, schools, and boroughs should not be expected to subsidize a highly profitable company.
Amazon trades under many different corporate names. For example, Vadata is the company that builds the Amazon data centers. These employ very few people and consume massive amounts of energy. It states quite openly that it strives to operate its facilities as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. And like all Amazon companies, it insists on special treatment at every step: accelerated building permit approvals, waivers of routine fees etc.
That includes written nondisclosure agreements before locals can engage in negotiations with the company. And then requiring referring to the projects by code names, demands that elected officials discuss the project only in closed-door session, not at public meetings, and of course that public information requests be given to Vadata, not release any information, including all submitted documents and even about the location. Other than this location point, is the Churchill Borough under such conditions?
In just 2017 Amazon got over $100 million in subsidies for new facilities.
Amazon promises to create jobs. But statistically, at the end of the 3rd year, no community has ever had a net gain in jobs. Others have calculated that for every 2 jobs it creates, Amazon causes 3 job losses in surrounding retail operations.
Yet when its demands are not given by these governments, it threatens to go elsewhere, almost every single time. And politicians cave in by giving rebates, tax credits for all the government agencies, wavers for fire and police, wavers from school taxes, credits for power and other utilities; essentially everything possible.
Now one of the things that Amazon has perfected because it has the financial muscle to hire the best legal minds, is total secrecy. In every case, without exception, Amazon keeps the negotiations from attracting public scrutiny until after the deal is done. It insists on locals calling these projects by code names, or in using the name of the developer or contractor, never using the name Amazon.
We saw that with Hillwood until finally in January, after having already received the conditional use zoning, it admitted the client was “Amazon”, and even that appeared to be a slip of the tongue.
Local politicians are so scared of upsetting Amazon that they frequently withhold its identity from their own employees.
That appears to be the case in Churchill when the council knew in 2019 and early 2020 that Amazon was behind the proposal. And yet they were apparently bound by the secrecy obligation. Of course one can ask why they felt this need to hide something that so significantly would affect the borough.
Amazon attorneys “advise” the government officials to create no public documents with all the details. And if compelled, to provide raw or incomplete data not easy to interpret. This deliberate lack of transparency continues until the deal is done.
Amazon officials have no comment even though they are actively negotiating for more and more concessions.
Reporters have documented this so many times yet local communities continue to fall into the secrecy trap.
Another disturbing characteristic of the Amazon legal team is to require whoever they are engaged with, whether school districts to sell them supplies, or localities for new construction, to alert Amazon if anyone makes public records request relating to the discussions, the contract etc, giving the company the chance to block the release of information. This is an explicit insistence against transparency in the expenditure of public dollars.
So is the Churchill Borough also required to do so when the right-to-know form is submitted?
When Amazon proposed its 2nd headquarters, so many cities competed to outdo one another with confidential information about their local economies, business, costs, and often ridiculous concessions, that Amazon now knows just how far politicians will go in acquiescing to Amazon demands even for tiny delivery stations. And all of that information that should be public, is cloaked in undersigned secrecy agreements. That means town secrets given to Amazon are not available to its citizens.
Indianapolis for example required four hundred employees to sign nondisclosure agreements. Montgomery County, Maryland in the Washington suburbs, responded to a freedom of information act request by turning over a ten-page document that was completely redacted, every line blacked out in prison stripes.
Of 238 bids provided to Amazon, (remember, these also contained intimate details about the community) 124 were complex, repeat, completely, secret.
Of course, hiring those who OK these projects for Amazon as employees after the fact is pure coincidence. Now Amazon now hires Washington insiders and state/local purchasing agents to lobby for it is the basis of another article. It is by 3 fold the largest lobbying group in Washington DC.